Women's War

An INS ruling saves a girl from torture.

Barefoot on a lazy Sunday afternoon, Deborah looks casual in her cluttered suburban apartment, but not relaxed. She speaks softly in an intoxicatingly melodic accent, recalling a terrifying memory three decades old that still plays over in her mind.

She is ten years old and helpless, being pinned to the ground by five men from her tribe in West Africa. Four of them restrain her arms and legs and a fifth sits astride her stomach as an old woman cuts away at her genitals with a dull knife.

There is no anesthetic. The old woman is furious at her for struggling. Like the girls circumcised before her, whose screams Deborah heard as she waited in another room, she cries out for her mother. But in her tribe, female genital mutilation is a custom that all mothers are powerless to stop.

"There is no escape," she says. "They believe if you are not circumcised, you will be promiscuous. If you are not circumcised, they will feel that it is a curse on them."

Deborah says she would rather be cursed than see her ten-year-old daughter, Marie, suffer the same pain she has suffered as a result of genital mutilation. So she turned to a group of legal and medical professionals led by immigration attorney David Leopold, who spent several months preparing a case for asylum based on female genital mutilation.

To Deborah's relief, an immigration judge granted her and Marie asylum last month. They are the first mother and daughter in the Midwest to be awarded refugee status based on that type of persecution, and among only a handful of women in the United States ever to seek it.

Deborah asked for their real names to remain out of the press, because Marie's safety could be jeopardized, even in the United States, if members of their tribe found them.

As of last year, an estimated 135 million women and girls had been genitally mutilated throughout the world, according to Amnesty International. The practice is common across Africa and in some Middle Eastern countries, as well as in those immigrant communities throughout the world.

In the most extreme cases, like Deborah's, the entire genitalia is removed. Other practitioners cut away only the clitoris or the clitoris and the labia minora. Then the outer parts of the labia majora are stitched together, leaving only a small hole for body fluids to escape. Besides being excruciatingly painful, genital mutilation can lead to hemorrhage, shock, infection, or death. Long-term effects include chronic urinary and reproductive tract infections, infertility, and difficult childbirth. Genital mutilation also impairs or removes a woman's ability to have enjoyable or even pain-free sexual intercourse.

Deborah lost a great deal of blood during the procedure. Afterwards, her grandmother poured iodine over the wound to stave off infection and bound her legs together. To this day, she still has chronic urinary tract infections and agonizing pain during sex. She also frequently re-experiences the mutilation in her mind, a result of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

"The pain doesn't ever go away," Deborah says. "Whenever you talk about it, it is just like it happened yesterday. All mothers should fight for their daughters, because [genital mutilation] is unnecessary torture."

Female genital mutilation was not considered grounds for asylum by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) until 1996, the same year the practice was outlawed in the United States. After a groundbreaking case in which the INS, on appeal, granted asylum to Fauziya Kassindja, a nineteen-year-old woman who had narrowly escaped mutilation in Togo, Attorney General Janet Reno issued guidelines to immigration judges on gender-based oppression.

To the frustration of human-rights advocates, the guidelines offer no guarantee of asylum. Individual judges can and do use their discretion in deciding such cases. The INS only awards refugee status to individuals who fear persecution in their home countries based on their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a social group. Kassindja's attorneys were able to convince the Board of Immigration Appeals that she had a well-founded fear of persecution based on her social group--young women who have not been genitally mutilated and who oppose the practice.

Leopold was able to push the definition of the social group one step further. "The court offered protection for women who had undergone it and who are now trying to protect their daughters," Leopold says. Other judges can now use the case to grant asylum to others who fall within that social group.

The challenge for human-rights groups is in getting the word out to immigrant women who don't know they can apply for asylum based on female genital mutilation. That's why Deborah and the team of professionals who worked on her case for months pro bono, including Leopold and Dr. Joy Marshall, have decided to break their silence about the case. Leopold has learned of at least one other woman in the Cleveland area whose daughter will be mutilated if she is deported. But there isn't much the law can do for her unless she, like Deborah, decides to fight.

"The reason there's so few cases is that you're talking about something that's been a cultural ritual for many generations," Leopold says. "It's a huge risk, even for women to say they oppose it."

Deborah was determined to keep her daughter in the United States, despite the urgent prompting of relatives who demanded that Marie be circumcised like the other girls in her tribe. Deborah and her daughter overstayed their visas--originally granted in 1995 so that Marie could undergo surgery--and evaded the INS for two years before she was reported in 1998. In January, she told the INS that, if she went back to Africa, her daughter would be mutilated, and given the girl's other medical problems, she might not survive the procedure. They were granted asylum in April.

Advocates from the World Organization Against Torture and Equality Now, human-rights groups who assisted Leopold with Deborah's case, say most of the cases they've seen are rarely decided so quickly and so favorably to the asylum seekers.

Deborah had a strong case, mainly because Marie is now of the age that most girls are mutilated in her country, says Robert Esbrook, director of the INS Chicago Office of Asylum, which processed the case. Deborah's testimony also helped.

"You have to show a reasonable fear of persecution," he says. "Passionate statements that show fear go a long way."

Deborah's testimony at the downtown federal courthouse was, by all accounts, quite emotional. The room was packed with supporters, including a priest, a nun, and about a dozen parishioners from Deborah's Catholic church, whose clicking rosary beads punctuated her testimony.

"Everyone in that courtroom was in tears, including the judge," says Allison W. Uguru, a case worker with the International Services Center, who also worked on Deborah's case.

The downside of resisting the ritual, Deborah explains, is that she can never go back home to her family. She is consoled knowing that they need her less than the daughter napping peacefully on the couch, unshaken by the story of her mother's mutilation. It is a story the courteous, good-natured child has heard her mother tell countless times. It is a story that, thanks to her mother, will never be her own.

Jacqueline Marino may be reached at [email protected].

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